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The Urgency of Housing in Haiti: First Priority in Addressing Widespread Rape (Part I)

Haitian women and girls in tent camps have no defense against violence and crushing poverty. Once hurricane season starts, threats to their lives will increase. Photo: Julie Dermansky©2010, www.jsdart.com

The 7.3 earthquake which struck Haiti on January 12 was only the start of Haiti’s most recent catastrophe. It has been followed by an ever-deepening social and economic crisis for those whose survival was precarious before the quake, especially among the 1.3 million who were left homeless or displaced. For this group, who are now packed into camps or squeezed into the most marginal of open spaces, some daily elements of life include the following:

  • Rape and other violence against women and girls, at high levels since the earthquake, appear to be rising;
  • Poverty and social destabilization are worsening. They find no relief in an environment where people lack dignity, privacy, the fulfillment of basic needs, or control over their lives;
  • The Haitian government has recently commenced violent evictions of internally displaced people from their camps, with a plan to relocate them in other vast and sometimes distant tent camps. Some survivors have now lost everything a second time, this time due to police smashing their belongings. Others live in fear that this will soon be their fate;
  • While drenching, all-night rains have been a constant since the earthquake, the rainy season commences in earnest in June, with hurricane season just behind. In this context, the tarps, tents, and rickety housing which internally displaced peoples have scraped together become life-threatening.

All of these social crises require the same first redress: housing. Deeper structural solutions are imperative, especially if Haiti is to have a future based on justice and equity, but in the immediate, earthquake survivors must have permanent, sturdy, and dignified homes. These must offer water, electricity, sanitation, and proximity to services.

Instead, three and a half months after the earthquake, housing construction is almost absent among the initiatives of the Haitian government, aid agencies, and international donor community. Relief organizations are planning the construction of 130,000 ‘semi-permanent’ shelters, in which category they include homes made of plastic tarps, according to the Associated Press.[1] This would only marginally address the needs of only one-tenth of those now homeless. National attention is instead focused on moving survivors to new tents in a few, densely populated camps, introducing other extreme problems. (See part II of this article on May 6 for more detail.)

Housing is a guaranteed human right according to both the Haitian constitution and international conventions. The Haitian constitution declares, “The State recognizes the right of every citizen to decent housing.” The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including… housing.” The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declares that “All internally displaced persons have the right to an adequate standard of living [with] safe access to… basic shelter and housing.”

Marie Paul, a now-unemployed street merchant who lives with her mother and two young children in the middle of a narrow street, explained, “If people’s rights were respected, we wouldn't be living under these sheets today.”

Rising Rape and Violence

Members of the grassroots group Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim (KOFAVIV) tracked 230 rapes in 15 camps, or 15.3 incidents per camp, between the January 12 earthquake and March 21. This figure is based on the findings of a few camp-based outreach workers without any transportation, other research capacity, or sometimes even cell phones, so it surely reflects only a percentage of the actual figure. KOFAIV coordinator Marie Eramithe Delva said that the women’s and children’s rights group now comes across at least one case of rape each day, which she recognizes does not capture the true number. Other, more methodical tracking efforts by Haitian and international organizations are now underway.

Girls and women have the right to be free from rape wherever they are; the problem is not just where they live. However, the conditions of their current residence in internally displaced camps substantially heighten their risk. All are in densely packed and public spaces, while some live in shelters much less substantial than even a tent. Some women and girls are in plain view, under strung-up tarps or bedsheets with limited or no walls. In the absence of private space, females must often bathe outdoors within full sight of all. In camps with gender-segregated outhouses, men sometimes hide in dark women’s bathrooms at night, awaiting a victim. Without the ability to lock themselves in at night, often without male accompaniment, and in tight quarters with up to thousands of men, women and girls are easy prey. Sometimes the women and girls are in plain view, under strung-up tarps or bedsheets with limited or no walls. In the absence of private space, females must often bathe outdoors within full sight of all. In camps with gender-segregated outhouses, men sometimes hide in dark women’s bathrooms at night, awaiting a victim. Without the ability to lock themselves in at night, often without male accompaniment, and in tight quarters with up to thousands of men, women and girls are easy prey.

Once they have been raped or attacked, they have nowhere to relocate to be secure from their assailant. In an extensive investigation over two weeks, this writer could find no women’s shelter in Port-au-Prince for survivors, except one that offers a three-day stay. If the survivors report the attacker, they are in even greater danger. Some women have fled town after reporting their rape to the police, for fear of retribution. Others have neither the bus fare to leave nor anywhere to relocate.

The vulnerability is aggravated by the fact that neither Haitian nor international police offer any measurable protection in the camps. In many interviews, women reported that they have never seen Haitian or U.N. security forces in their camps, notwithstanding U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s March 13 statement that the first priority of the U.N. is to protect women.[2]

Some camps have organized all-volunteer security brigades, usually of men, which can be a help. In other camps, women have complained in interviews, men join simply to be able to enter tents and steal with greater ease.

Delva and her family were subject to their third post-earthquake attack on April 26. Two men entered under their open tarp whose boundaries, in today’s reconfigured reality, signifies ‘home.’ By chance, members of the camp security brigade were in the area. While one of the intruders ran, brigade members caught the other and brought him to the police station. “We don’t know what happened to him then,” Delva said.

KOFAVIV co-coordinator Malya Villard Appolon reported that the group knows of only one case where a perpetrator was arrested, in a case which reveals some of the challenges to cracking down on the violence. In a mid-March attack against a woman who wanted her name withheld, two men entered her tent in Camp d’Application in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant. They raped and beat her, inflicting her with a head wound. One of the men then escaped, while police arrested the other. The judge later threw out the case, stating that the doctor’s certificate did not contain the proper stamp, though this is not legally necessary. Relatives of the rapist told the survivor that they would come kill her. The woman went into hiding.

In one of many similar stories, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped by five men in the last week of April, according to a delegation of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. With no father and a mother in great difficulty, the girl lives with a young friend in a tent in a camp.[3]

Women report living in constant fear for themselves and their daughters. One woman in a meeting of rape survivors in a downtown schoolyard recounted that she and others sleep with machetes under their beds for protection, while another woman said she tries to sleep lightly so she can stay alert to danger. In interviews, residents of several camps across Port-au-Prince said that they hear women being beaten almost every night.

The problem of gender-based violence, in Haiti as everywhere, requires deep solutions, including more effectively stigmatizing, prosecuting, and penalizing it. Haiti faces a further challenge of a weak justice system which is neither upholding laws or protecting citizens, especially vulnerable ones. For now, Haitian and international women’s groups are urging the U.N. and the national government to step up violence prevention measures, such as increasing security in the camps, providing private bathing areas, and providing gender sensitivity training to Haitian police.

As more females become victims, and as hurricane season approaches, the massive international plan to simply move homeless people from to other tent camps is as dangerous as it is nonsensical. It is also a human rights violation. “Do they think we’re animals?” asked one elder woman as she sat on a crate in the mud in front of her tent.

Female Haitians deserve to live out of sight and out of reach of would-be perpetrators, and to bathe, use the toilet, and sleep without terror. Housing will not end the problem of rape and other gender-based violence, but it is the first imperative through which women and girls can begin to protect themselves from harm’s way.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that, in the cases of the woman beaten and raped in the internally displaced people's Camp d'Application and of the 15-year-old who was gang-raped, the crimes could not be prosecuted because neither survivor could produce the proper certificate - signed by a doctor within 72 hours of the attack - verifying their rapes. The stories are true. However, we have just learned that the rationale for throwing the cases out was false. In fact, as attorney Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti just brought to our attention, "there is no requirement in Haitian law that a medical exam be done within 72 hours, or even a requirement that there be any medical certificate. Lawyers, judges and police will claim there’s a requirement, but cannot point to it in any law book. The requirement is in fact a 'tradition' in Haitian judicial practice, and like many traditions needs to be challenged. Underlying the tradition is a belief that a woman’s testimony cannot be trusted, against a man’s, without expert corroboration (usually from a man)." That an untold number of survivors have lost their chance to prosecute due to a legally unnecessary burden of proof being demanded of them gives another insight into the tremendous difficulty of trying to obtain justice.

1 Frank Bajak, “Transitional housing slowly getting built in Haiti,” Associated Press, April 30, 2010.
2 Joseph Guyler Delva and Marine Hass, “UN chief urges donors to keep Haiti funds flowing,” Reuters, March 14, 2010.
3 Blaine Bookey, “Nap Kenbe: Finding a Safe Space for Haiti’s Women, Part II,” http://ijdh.org/archives/11801.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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